Rachel Kushner’s first two novels, “Telex from Cuba” and “The Flamethrowers” were both finalists for the National Book Award. Given all the critical praise of her newest, “The Mars Room,” the story of a female convict serving two life-terms in a prison deep in California’s Central Valley, the third time may be the charm. Kushner lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son.
BOOKS: What are you reading on book tour?
KUSHNER: I don’t have time to read anything on tour unfortunately. I listened to an audio book when I was walking through the airport, this highly commercial bestseller, Matthew Walker’s “Why We Sleep.” I was trying to improve my sleep while I was traveling, and someone told me about this book. All it does is put the fear of god in you about taking sleeping pills.
BOOKS: Do you normally read self-help?
KUSHNER: I don’t. I can’t stand that stuff, but I do read nonfiction. When I wrote this book I read a lot of books by scholars about mass incarceration. I keep a shelf I think of as the hot shelf with all the books that I’m reading when I’m working on a novel.
BOOKS: What would you recommend from the hot shelf for “The Mars Room”?
KUSHNER: “Inside This Place, Not of It,” edited by Robin Levi and Ayelet Waldman, is part of an [oral history] series called “Voice of Witness.” The editors of each book interview people who have experienced one thing. The interviews are edited in such an expert way that the narratives become riveting. This book is about women in prisons across America. As the cliché goes, I really did stay up all night reading it.
BOOKS: What were you reading before you got caught up in your tour?
KUSHNER: Rachel Cusk’s “Outline.” I had a terrible dream after I read that book, that I had abandoned my family. I realized that the book had done that to me because it’s about [the narrator’s] own need to completely redefine who she is after she leaves her family. I just read “Working Days,” the journals John Steinbeck kept while he was writing “The Grapes of Wrath.” It was interesting to learn about his research process. He’d go from labor camp to labor camp. I was also reading “The Conquest of Bread” by Richard A. Walker, which explains how the Central Valley didn’t convert from family farms to industrial agriculture. It began as industrial agricultural. I brought “My Cousin Rachel” by Daphne du Maurier” on tour because I love “Rebecca.” You don’t have to think while you read du Maurier because she’s a totally absorbing storyteller.
BOOKS: Can you read fiction while working on your own novel?
KUSHNER: Yeah. A lot of [writers] say that they can’t. I don’t get that. Reading stimulates my brain, and I need that to write fiction. I don’t read many contemporary novels but not because I’m working on my own. I like to let history do the sifting work it seems to do so well. When I was writing this book I read Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” and a new translation by Oxford World’s Classics of St. Augustine’s “Confessions.” I read those two side by side, and there was something about that experience that was profoundly useful. I think reading Dostoevsky was like a life raft while I was working on this book.
BOOKS: Is there a time period of novelists you prefer?
KUSHNER: No. I love the modernists like Proust, but I also love Don DeLillo. I had to read a whole bunch of Cormac McCarthy because I wrote a preface to “The Border Trilogy.” I think I’ve read enough McCarthy to last me a lifetime.
BOOKS: What are you reading next?
‘Reading stimulates my brain, and I need that to write fiction.’
KUSHNER: I’m going to read Balzac’s “Lost Illusions,” which I’ve never read. You can never go wrong with Balzac. And I want to read Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge.” I’ll finish the Rachel Cusk’s trilogy and read “Who We Are and How We Got Here” by geneticist David Reich. I plan to get to the bottom of this question about the enduring presence of Neanderthals.
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